By Sharon Atieno

As Rwanda is on the verge of becoming the first African country to eliminate cervical cancer, Kenya is also in the race with the latest intervention being the national roll out of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine for young girls.

It is estimated that though cervical cancer is preventable, it kills around 9 women daily in Kenya. The World Health Organization projects that globally, there are 570,000 new cases diagnosed, of which 90 percent of deaths are in low and middle income countries.

Though the country is in its last preparation of introducing the vaccine to fight cervical cancer, the journey has been marred with opposition from different factions. Some of them pegging their argument on rumours that the vaccine could lead to infertility.

It is against this background that women legislators and other leaders alongside civil society organizations (CSOs) championing various health issues met in Nairobi for a sensitization forum on cervical cancer convened by Kenya AIDs NGOs Consortium (KANCO).

Allan Ragi at the sensitization forum

Speaking at the event, Allan Ragi, KANCO’s Executive director, called upon the leaders to be champions of eliminating this scourge, which is among the leading cancers affecting women in the country.

“As leaders your voice is heard more than any other technical team,” he said, “one word you say can make a whole lot of difference.”

Advocating for screening in order to detect the HPV infection early and provide solutions before it advances to cervical cancer, Dr. Mary Nyangasi , Ministry of health said: “Having champions across the country will help to screen more women.”

HPV infection takes five to 20 years before becoming cervical cancer.  As HPV has no signs and symptoms, most people will never know they are infected; therefore, early screening of women of reproductive age is encouraged to help identify development of cervical cancer.

Dr. Nyangasi laments that though around 13 million women aged 15 to 49 years are at risk of cervical cancer in Kenya, only 16 percent go for screening. She notes that there is need for behavior change communication to advocate for screening.

In the inaugural national cervical cancer awareness week held earlier in the year, only 2500 women were screened.

Calling to leaders to join the cervical cancer movement and encourage more women to be screened in the next cervical cancer awareness week to be held in the last week of January, she said:  “Let us have champions in all the counties so that we can be able to screen more women, more than the 2500.”

While women are encouraged to go for HPV screening after every five years, HIV positive women are required to go for screening yearly.

Female leaders at the forum

In support of HPV vaccination for children, Dr. Rose Jalang’o said that vaccines work and there is proof from previous vaccines which have been introduced before.

The HPV vaccine will be an additional vaccine for children to prevent them from dying from vaccine preventable diseases.  Initially, Kenya had vaccines preventing six diseases; the number has risen to cover 13.

She noted that the vaccine was safe as most of the girls immunized during the pilot project held in Kitui County from 2012 to 2015, tolerated the vaccine very well.

Because of the global vaccine shortage, Dr. Jalang’o said that the national vaccine roll out of HPV will only target 10 year old adolescent girls.

The vaccines which will be administered at the health facilities will consist of two jabs, with a separation period of six months.

“The first one, at the first contact with the health care worker and the second dose six months after,” she said. “In a lifetime, they only need two jabs.”

For girls living with HIV, the vaccination is given in three doses.

Appealing to the women leaders to advocate for the HPV Vaccine, she noted that women of all ages look up to them as role models and that anything they say concerning women health they are more likely to take it seriously than they are to take a typical person.

“Be an advocate for HPV vaccine, champion for immunization that all the girls will be ready to turn out in large numbers and get vaccinated,” Dr. Jalang’o urged.

The HPV vaccine is most effective if administered to girls before exposure to HPV, this is because most HPV infections occur after the start of sexual activity through skin to skin contact such as thighs and pubic hair.

The HPV vaccine prevents genital warts and two high risk types of HPV that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers. Risk factors of cervical cancer include: early initiation of sexual activity, immune suppression due to HIV/AIDS infection, multiple sexual partners, multiparity (normal delivery of more than four children), tobacco use and co-infection with other sexually transmitted infections such as Chlamydia.

“This is a disease that is completely preventable through vaccination, screening of eligible women of age 25 to 49 years and treatment for those that will be found to have cancerous lesions or cancer itself,” Dr. Nyangasi reiterated.